Petr Eben


Born: January 22, 1929 Died: October 24, 2007
Arguably the foremost Czech composer from the latter twentieth and early twenty first centuries, Petr Eben produced a substantial output largely of vocal, choral, symphonic, organ, piano, and chamber works. In many ways he was the Czech counterpart to Olivier Messiaen, owing to the two composers' common religion -- Roman Catholicism -- and, more importantly, their tendency to write music, both vocal and purely instrumental, inspired by it. Eben survived both imprisonment by the Nazis and decades-long oppression by the Soviet-dominated Czech Communist government. Stylistically, he was uncompromising when others were willing to write politically correct music. Not that Eben's works are especially difficult or inaccessible; most listeners would find his expressive language no further advanced than that of Britten or Messiaen, two composers who may well have influenced him. Eben was considered a master at improvisation on the organ and his music has been widely performed and recorded since about 1980, with his popularity still apparently on the rise.

Eben was born in Zamberk, Czechoslovakia, on January 22, 1929, and grew up in the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov. He was precocious, studying piano, organ, and cello there from his early youth. After the Nazi invasion and occupation of his homeland, Eben, a Roman Catholic with a Jewish father, was imprisoned in the notorious death camp Buchenwald from 1943 to 1945. In 1948 he enrolled at the Prague Academy of Music, where he studied under Pavel Borkevec (composition) and Frantisek Rauch (piano). He graduated in 1954 and the following year began teaching music history at Prague's Charles University, on whose faculty he remained until 1990.

Eben's earliest large works included his 1954 First Organ Concerto (the Second came in 1984) and Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1960-1961). In 1977-1978 Eben taught at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, and thereafter developed other musical ties to England. Throughout his life Eben refused to join the Czech Communist Party and continued openly attending church, thus forfeiting many career advancements. After the Communist government crumbled, however, he was given several important appointments and awards, among them presidency of the Prague Spring Festival (1989) and the Medal of Merit (2002). Among Eben's most important late works is his 1992-1993 oratorio Posvatna znameni (Sacred Symbols). Despite declining health from a stroke in his final years, Eben remained busy, composing mostly organ and choral works. He died in Prague on October 25, 2007.
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